The Way Forward

The Future of the United Methodist Church— A Way Forward!  

(Published in the Epistle December 2018 edition)
 
You may or may not have heard, but the United Methodist Church has been dealing with some controversies lately. As with all controversial issues, we can be overcome with the shock of the topic and lose our sense of perspective. My job, as your pastor, is to provide information, resources, and a healthy outlook on the place we find ourselves as United Methodists. The coming months will be crucial to the future of our denomination, and I encourage you to read the resources in this article so you have first-hand knowledge when the inevitable rumor mill begins its work in the near future. General Conference meets every four years and is the highest legislative body in the United Methodist Church (UMC). It is only at General Conference that our book of church structure and law, the Book of Discipline, can be revised. The UMC gives full voting rights to international delegates; so this is a worldwide gathering, connecting cultures and Annual Conferences from Europe, Asia, Africa and North America. At every General Conference since 1972, our denomination has debated, voted and re-voted over our position on human sexuality. In 2016, a resolution was passed so that this topic would not grind General Conference to a halt, and a “Commission on a Way Forward” was formed. Their work was to do a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph of the Book of Discipline concerning human sexuality and explore options that help to maintain and strengthen the unity of the church. This Commission, made up of United Methodist Laity and Clergy, has been working since 2016 to prepare for a special called General Conference to decide on the future of the UMC in light of our impasse on human sexuality. This General Conference will be held in St. Louis, Missouri, from February 23-26, 2019. While there are many options being considered from other groups within the denomination, the Commission has come up with three possible plans for the UMC going forward: The One Church Plan: The One Church Plan provides a generous unity that gives conferences, churches, and pastors the flexibility to uniquely reach their missional context without disbanding the connectional nature of The United Methodist Church. In the One Church Plan, no annual conferences, bishops, congregations, or pastors are compelled to act contrary to their convictions around human sexuality. If approved, changes to the UMC would be phased in after the 2020 General Conference. The Connectional Church Plan: The Connectional Conference Plan, while requiring an almost complete change of our denominational structure, reflects a unified core that includes shared doctrine and services. Under this plan, the UMC is built around three connectional conferences based on theology including perspectives on LGBTQ ministry. Due to the complex nature of this plan, changes will be phased in over the next couple of General Conferences. The Traditionalist Plan: The request for a “Traditionalist” Plan was made to the Commission late in their process. As presented to the Commission, the Traditionalist Plan steps up accountability to the current Book of Discipline language. This Plan requires every Annual Conference to certify that they will uphold, enforce, and maintain the Discipline’s standards on LGBTQ marriage and ordination. Annual conferences that did not certify would be encouraged to form an “autonomous, affiliated” denomination that would work together with the UMC but no longer be a part of it. As of 2021, annual conferences that did not certify could no longer use the United Methodist name and logo, and they could no longer receive any funds from The United Methodist Church. I encourage you to be in prayer for the delegates and the sensitive, complex matters they will legislate during General Conference. Either way they vote, these issues will affect real people in our churches across the world, and in the pews next to you at St. Paul’s. Our Bishop, Rev. Ken Carter, has encouraged all people in Florida to pray, in the morning or the afternoon, from 2:23-2:26, symbolizing the dates of General Conference. I hope you’ll join me in this prayer vigil over the coming months. In addition to prayer, I encourage you to read, watch, and listen to primary-source material on this upcoming General Conference and the Commission on a Way Forward’s work. Each of these plans have their supporters and detractors, and it is important that everyone reads the Way Forward report on the three plans before forming opinions. Our Florida Conference website (www.flumc.org) has an in-depth section devoted to Way Forward resources at www.flumc.org/wayforward. On this site you can read the Commission’s entire report, watch “listening sessions” with Bishop Carter around the conference, read about the history of the UMC and human sexuality, and keep up to date with future developments. In closing, let me assure you that the church of Jesus Christ has weathered these storms before, and will weather them again. On Sunday, March 3, you will come back to worship. The good news is; you will notice that we will still be worshipping our Lord Jesus Christ and ministry will continue here, regardless of how our General Conference votes. In the middle of our culture full of polarization, war, and anxiety, it is important that the church be a place of unity, peace, and assurance that God is bigger than the issues we think divide us. My hope is that this article provides understanding and clarity during this confusing time. I am here if anyone would like to discuss these issues further, and as always, I am honored to serve as your pastor during these important times for our UMC and our witness as disciples of Christ. ~Robert